Lauren Goode

A Smarter Calendar for iPhone

What if the calendar on your iPhone guessed which Starbucks you were headed to for your next meeting, dialed a conference-call passcode for you, and dug up a friend’s address for you so you can send flowers on the day she’s having surgery?

That’s what Tempo does. It’s a free iPhone app made by a Silicon Valley-based company called Tempo AI, which stands for “artificial intelligence.”

When people hear “artificial intelligence,” they may think about robots and other computers that can interpret and mimic human interaction. But some tech companies apply AI to mobile applications that run on the smartphone in your hand. (Think Apple’s Siri, or Google Now. Tempo, like Siri, was created at SRI International.)

Tempo hit the App Store last month, and currently, there’s a “wait list” of more than 20,000 iPhone users who have signed up for the app. The company estimates the wait time to be about a week. Personally, I think it’s worth the wait.

I’ve been using Tempo for the past week and a half. I was intrigued by the promise of a smarter calendar, especially since the iPhone’s native calendar app hasn’t changed much since the smartphone first came out. For the most part, I really like Tempo’s user interface and the way it automatically provided context, like phone numbers, maps or email threads, for the notes I put in my calendar appointments.

There was some room for improvement, though, mainly with inputting new calendar appointments on the fly. On more than one occasion, I turned back to the native iPhone calendar app to enter in new data.

Tempo isn’t the only smart calendar app out there, and others offer some nifty features. Sunrise, for example, inserts the temperature and other weather symbols into your calendar throughout the day. Cue (formerly called Greplin) also includes weather info, but what I really like is how it included upcoming travel at the bottom of the app screen. This week, it reminded me that I have a flight out of JFK next Friday, and it included my airline and confirmation code.

Tempo

Another iPhone calendar app, Fantastical, is fast, fluid and lets you type quick notes in natural language — “Book massage for Saturday,” or “Call Mom this weekend” — that it will smartly add to the next probable calendar date.

But these have their drawbacks, too. Cue, for one, doesn’t currently have any option for inputting new calendar appointments. And Fantastical costs $4.99 to download, whereas others are free, if you’re looking for a cheap fix.

All of these AI calendar apps require that you link at least a few other accounts — your Contacts, Gmail or Exchange mail, Facebook and more — in order to really work their magic. So if you’re skittish about sharing so much data with an iPhone app, you might still prefer a mobile calendar that just records your meetings and appointments and sends you a standard reminder a few minutes before.

Tempo

Here are some experiences I had with Tempo that demonstrate what it can do:

It offers quick messaging options straight from the app. Last Monday, when I had a meeting with someone I’ll call Jane Doe, all I had in my calendar was “Hold for Jane Doe” at 1 pm. When I realized I was running late, I opened the Tempo app, and saw that it had already automatically surfaced Jane’s contact info from my phone’s address book. I tapped “I’m Late” at the bottom of the app, and it sent Jane Doe an auto-text-message saying I would be five minutes late. A few minutes later, I tapped “Message” in Tempo to type in my own message: “Coming up now — in the elevator.”

Even when I didn’t enter a full name into my calendar, Tempo still found relevant info for me. A recent reminder in my calendar read: “Stephanie having surgery”. When I tapped on the reminder, Tempo had gathered contact info for four different Stephanies I know. I was able to send a quick note to the correct Stephanie wishing her well, and if I’d wanted to, I could have posted on her Facebook page.

Tempo

If I wanted to send Stephanie flowers, Tempo had taken the first step toward that, too: It pulled, from an ancient Gmail thread, her home address. My friend was touched that I got in touch. I haven’t told her that an app did a lot of the work for me.

Tempo often pulls email threads into appointments, which is great when you’re getting ready to call someone and need to glance at your most recent email correspondence. However, Tempo indexes new emails only every hour or so, so if someone sent a last-minute email with a change of plans, which happened to me, that wouldn’t show up in Tempo.

I also found the mapping option pretty helpful. I created a calendar appointment for a meeting, and purposely identified the location as just “Starbucks.” When I opened up Tempo, the app had found more than 10 Starbucks near me (welcome to New York City). Tapping on one of the suggested locations quickly brought me to a new page in the app that included a map, directions and the phone number for that coffee shop.

TempoPic4

My biggest gripe about Tempo has to do with its design. I kept looking at the app, thinking something else should be there — like a set of arrows to skip from month to month, or a “day” view option at the bottom of the screen when I was in month mode. It turns out you can swipe from month to month, but this wasn’t obvious to me. And you switch from month to week to day mode by tapping the title bar at the top of the app.

When I first starting using Tempo, I got so flustered putting in a follow-up doctor’s appointment at the receptionist’s desk that I resorted to using the native iPhone calendar. I wasn’t alone, either: As a test, I handed my smartphone to a tech-savvy friend and asked him to input a calendar appointment for May. He fumbled with the app for a bit before he figured out the best way to do this.

If you hop on a conference call directly from the app, Tempo also offers the option to dial “1234#” instead of your full passcode for conference call, provided that you’ve put all of the correct dial-in info into the calendar appointment (BlackBerry smartphones have long offered short-cuts for dialing into conference calls, for what it’s worth). I tried this a few times, and each time an automated voice told me that my passcode was not correct.

But this had something to do with the fact that my native calendar still had an outdated conference call number in the notes, and Tempo was pulling in two different numbers to call. After I erased all info pertaining to the old conference-call number, this worked.

Aside from that, Tempo is my new go-to app for reading — and acting upon — calendar appointments.


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